In my writing group this past week, I learned that some of my writers have been struggling with description and finding that line between too much and not enough. And how to do it in a way that doesn’t just feel like a list of facts. While we aren’t meeting this week because I am seeing a friend for social reasons for the first time since the pandemic started (squee!), I promised them I’d write a blog to help them work on this. At the end of the blog is going to be an exercise you are welcome to use to work on your own descriptions! If you like that format and find it helpful, please comment and let me know, and I can start doing a blog series that comes with exercises for you to work on.
On with the show!
The first thing we need to nail down is the function of description in our work. Why use it at all? While the reasons may seem obvious to some, sometimes laying things out can help. The first of description’s functions is to help the reader build the world in their mind’s eye. It lets them “see” things the way you do. It also helps to bring the reader more fully into the setting by providing them with those lucious little details that can really make your work leap off the page.
As with so many things in writing, however, the key is finding balance. I often describe various different kinds of writing as adding salt to your food. Some people like more or less salt on their food, and that’s perfectly okay. However, if there’s absolutely none whatsoever, we tend to notice it in a bad way. If there’s too much, it’s inedible entirely. So our duty as writers is to add the correct amount of seasoning to our text. That said, there is a fair amount of “season to taste” that happens here, so there’s no specific hard and fast rule about the precise measurement of most of these things. Everything from adverbs to passive voice to all the other things we’re told never to do actually has a place in the language and can have a place in writing; you just need to use it with caution and specificity. The same goes for punctuation, even!
Now, to focus on description, the details of how to use it and when have some measure of “rules,” though we still look at things being to taste. Let’s compare some descriptive passages you may or may not be familiar with for the purposes of looking at different description styles:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tubeshaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats – the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill – The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it – and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.
The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.
Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
These two passages are by very different authors writing in very different genres with Tolkein being the father of the fantasy genre as we know it and Hemingway being one of the grandmasters of literary fiction. The passage from The Old Man and the Sea is a few lines past the opening, but it is still on the first page of the book, so both of these are in the beginnings of their respective stories and are the first blush the reader has with the setting for the most part.
The first difference you will notice here between the two is the length. Tolkien’s description and opening there is 235 words while Hemmingway’s is 78. While they are both describing different things (a person versus a location), you hear each author’s voice through the prose with distinction. Tolkien loves paranthetical asides while Hemmingway is rather concrete with only enough detail to get the rough idea of things. He definitely wouldn’t have described everything about the hobbit hole.
Neither of these descriptions is “right” or “wrong.” But the difference tells the reader more or less what they’re in for in terms of the author’s style. They also evoke very different things if you study them enough.
Tolkein draws the reader in by creating, in great detail, this cozy little home in this cozy little world that you can settle into like resting in your favorite armchair. He describes everything important and both tells the reader a lot about the house but also about the hobbit who lives there. That description suits the main character of the story and introduces him and his life as much as it does describe the setting. Much like his home, Bilbo Baggins at this point in his story is a cozy little man in a cozy little house living a cozy little life.
That right there is part of the function of description: characterization.
One of my favorite descriptions of all time–and I am paraphrasing here–is a description by Neil Gaiman who portrayed a character as the exact size and shape of a refrigerator (it’s somewhere in American Gods, or Neverwhere; I forget which). It characterized the person perfectly and brought the image to my head and gave me instant insight into who they were and what they did.
In Hemingway’s description of Santiago (the titular old man), we learn a lot about him from his description as well. That he’s old and worn and scarred from the work but still energetic and bright. You can read that in the way Hemingway uses language to describe him. He’s also described in a loving manner through the eyes of someone who cares for him. Much the same way as we can see Tolkein’s love and tenderness for Bilbo.
While I can and will talk more about characterization in another blog, for the sake of time and word count, I won’t get too deep into the subject. Just understand that the way you use description can be an important part of it. The words you choose to describe your characters and the attributes you give them will shape how the reader views them and what readers expect of the character. You can always subvert those expectations (I encourage it for fun AND profit) but describing characters in certain ways will give readers different views of them.
So how do you describe something? Description is more than a laundry list of attributes. Take, for example, these two descriptions of the same character:
Albert was tall. He was thin and had long fingers. He had white hair. He had a long nose. Albert was missing some teeth. He wore ragged clothing.
Albert was a tall, thin man. His hands should have belonged to a pianist, but his slouchy, patched overalls belonged to a farmer. His long, scraggly white hair was past needing a trim and into the territory of needing a veterinarian all on its own. He was missing several teeth but smiled anyway, an easy, honest thing. Just like the rest of him.
Both of those depictions give identical information, but the second one tells us more about Albert, rather than just listing attributes in a vacuum. The difference comes partially in that rather than listing attributes out, I give a little bit more of what they mean. The note that his hands should’ve belonged to a pianist tells you they’re large and probably rather strong with slender fingers. Having white hair will only get you so far. You can describe the cut, color, and length all you want, but if you don’t give readers a reason to care about it or more than raw data, you’ll just bore them. Particularly if you give it to them in a big block of text.
This same method should be used for locations, items, or anything else of enough significance to warrant describing. Much like with the hobbit hole, you should describe places readers will “visit” often with more attention than you do places they go in passing. These descriptions don’t need to be massive, but you’ll want your reader able to picture the place and know what to expect from it. Also, if you don’t describe your locations much (or at all) you’ll run the risk of having your characters standing in a white void in the reader’s head with nothing around them.
So how much is too much? How do you know what to describe and what not to describe? That takes some practice and consideration. On one hand, you need to provide enough detail that the reader can picture something clearly enough to “see” it. On the other, you need to ensure you don’t drown them in unnecessary details. If the number, shade, and facets of the gems on the hilt of your character’s sword are important or pertinent to the plot, then by all means, describe the exact details of that. If that isn’t, you can describe the hilt as jeweled without losing too much sleep over it.
Description is one of the signals to a reader that a thing is important. If you describe a place, person, or thing in detail, it is usually because it is significant to the story in some way. Whether it’s a character who will be important to the story or the MacGuffin (link to the definition if you don’t know the term), if you intend on using it and having it be important, description will clue the reader into the fact that it matters.
So, circling back to the beginning, description serves three main functions:
- Helping the reader see the world
- Assisting with characterization
- Highlighting important people, places, or things for the reader
Returning to the conversation about salt and preferences, some writers tend to use more than others. Description can vary between the genre of the work (some genres use more, like in classic stories which rely heavily on simile to describe things), the individual writer’s preference, and many other factors. While there are right and wrong ways to describe things, and right and wrong amounts and types of description for different books, different moments, and different authors, that’s something you can work with your editor on.
Also, be aware that during first drafts, you will likely do one of two things: over-describe or under-describe. I tend to be in the latter camp, and during my first draft I describe almost nothing. Which is why I go back over things and rework them before even sending things to beta readers a lot of the time (with a few exceptions like my husband who puts up with my bad behavior). Don’t feel bad about over or under describing things in your first draft. Remember: edit after you write. Just get the story out and then work on it.
Finally, as promised, the exercise. I would like you, in your own words, find a picture to describe. It can be any picture you like (though make sure you provide proper attribution to the photographer or artist). You can do it in the comments or in the #homework channel in the writing group. Either way, write a description of this and try and tell the reader something about the picture. Evoke a story, a moment, a feeling. Don’t just list off attributes! Once you’re done, you can show the picture to the reader if you want to, but the key here isn’t to show off a photo; make the reader “see” the image.
Good luck, and I look forward to reading your exercises!